Updated December 2023
On this page, we provide the following performance data:
- hydraulic fracturing water use – sector summary
- hydraulic fracturing water use – company performance
Hydraulic fracturing is a well completion technique used to create cracks in the rocks around a well to increase the flow of oil and natural gas. It involves pumping fluid into a wellbore to create enough pressure to fracture the surrounding hydrocarbon-bearing rock layer.
The fracturing operation takes place at the start of the wellbore's life cycle. The injected fluid is often water, and it usually contains various chemical additives and a proppant, such as sand, to keep the fractures open so oil and gas can flow to the well. For more information on hydraulic fracturing fluids, see FracFocus.ca.
What is "make-up" water for a hydraulic fracturing project?
Make-up water is nonsaline water or alternative water injected into the wellbore to fracture the reservoir. Because hydraulic fracturing operations do not use water after a well is fractured, opportunities to recycle fracturing fluid (flowback water) within the well are limited, so make-up water accounts for most of the water used. However, flowback water can be reused to fracture a different well, thus contributing to the make-up water used in another hydraulic fracturing operation.
What is the common source of water?
The most common source of water for hydraulic fracturing operations is nonsaline water. Our licensing process for allocating nonsaline water under the Water Act ensures minimal environmental effects, and the strain on nonsaline water resources is low.
Geology significantly affects the total volume of water needed to hydraulically fracture a well. The geological formations a company targets can influence its overall nonsaline water use intensity. Geological attributes and reservoir characteristics vary throughout a formation, directly affecting water use and hydrocarbon production volumes for seemingly identical wells and hydraulic fracturing operations in the same geological formation.
At present, we report nonsaline water use by geological formation or group. We can draw more meaningful conclusions about water use and industry best practices by looking at companies producing from the same formation.
Can alternative make-up water be used for hydraulic fracturing?
We encourage companies to conserve nonsaline water when developing water management plans for hydraulic fracturing operations. However, using large volumes of alternative water for hydraulic fracturing can be challenging.
Produced water is a by-product of hydrocarbon production and can be used as a source of alternative water. However, the amount of produced water available varies depending on the level of oil and gas activity in the area and the geologic formations being produced. Formations are considered either "wet" or "dry." Actively producing wells in a "wet" formation could supply produced water for use in hydraulic fracturing, whereas wells operating in a "dry" formation produce insufficient volumes of water to sustain a hydraulic fracturing operation. Produced water must often be collected and stored to build a sufficient quantity to contribute to a hydraulic fracturing operation.
As mentioned earlier, flowback water can be reused at a subsequent fracturing operation (i.e., as an alternative make-up water source), but factors such as transporting and storing flowback water also influence reuse. Consequently, to reuse flowback water, the receiving operation needs to be near the operation generating the flowback water and able to accept the flowback water relatively soon after it becomes available.
In some areas, abundant nonsaline water sources are available to sustain an operator's planned development without posing a risk to the local environment. In such cases, using nonsaline water might be preferable because it removes the risk of moving and storing poorer-quality alternative water on the landscape.
There are practical limitations to using alternative water: companies may not have viable options for alternative water sources (e.g., produced water) or the infrastructure (e.g., water storage facilities) to support alternative water use. We also have stringent requirements for storing and transporting large volumes of alternative water, which has led some companies to use nonsaline water because it may not be feasible or practical to develop infrastructure to use alternative water. We are working to make it easier for companies to use more alternative water and, in turn, less nonsaline water while ensuring the environment remains protected. For example, updates to our waste storage, handling and disposal requirements (i.e., Directive 055 and Directive 058) have facilitated a company’s ability to stockpile alternative water for use in hydraulic fracturing. Additionally, regulatory requirements to enable the movement of alternative water through temporary surface pipelines were released in November 2023 (in Directive 077), thereby removing more barriers to increasing the use of alternatives to nonsaline water. We expect these regulatory changes to decrease nonsaline water use intensity starting in 2024.
How do we measure performance?
Water use efficiency depends on several factors. For hydraulic fracturing, water use efficiency depends on the project stage. While other technologies use water throughout the operations stage, hydraulically fractured wells typically use water only once during the completion phase after drilling the well (part of the ”construct” stage). Hydraulically fractured wells are expected to produce hydrocarbons for years after well construction is complete without needing additional water during the operations stage, meaning that the water use intensity of a hydraulic fracturing operation decreases over time.
The average water use intensity for a hydraulically fractured well is 0.45 barrels of water per barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) in its first year of production —decreasing to 0.12 BOE after five years of production. The intensity will continue to decrease because most wells produce hydrocarbons for more than five years without using more water.
Hydraulic fracturing operators used about 20% of their nonsaline water allocation in 2022 (see the following figure).
The following map shows where hydraulic fracturing operators are using nonsaline water as a source of make-up water in Alberta. Zoom in to reveal more.
source of make-up water in Alberta. Zoom in to reveal more. Our data shows that most hydraulic fracturing occurs in areas with relatively abundant nonsaline water resources and relatively low existing allocations.
Total Water Use
Over the past ten years, the annual total water use has increased (see the following figure). There was a sharp increase between 2016 and 2018, followed by a significant decrease in 2020, then a return to near 2018 levels.
Although more wells were fractured in 2013 (3358) and 2014 (3480) than in 2018 (2290), the increased water use between 2016 and 2018 may be attributable to operators targeting different formations (e.g., Montney and Duvernay). Operators in the Montney and Duvernay Formations have steadily increased horizontal well lengths and the number of fracture stages of their wells over the past ten years. Wells with longer horizontal legs and more fracture stages use more water per well. However, drilling longer wells means fewer new wells are needed, resulting in less disturbance on the land surface to produce the same volume of hydrocarbons.
This situation differs from previous years (2013 to 2016), where operators primarily targeted formations (e.g., Cardium) that required less water per well because of geological factors.
The average well in the Duvernay Formation uses ten times more water than a well in the Cardium Formation. For wells in the Montney Formation, water use is four times that of an average Cardium Formation well. Total water use appears to correlate to the number of wells fractured in the Montney and Duvernay Formations.
Of the total water used in 2022, just over 1% was recycled water, and the remaining 99% was make-up water. In 2022, an increase in the total annual production from all wells fractured since 2013 continued, with almost 619 million BOE produced in 2022. Hydrocarbon production from hydraulically fractured wells has increased by 608% between 2013 and 2022.
In 2022, about 26 million m3 of make-up water was used for hydraulic fracturing. Nonsaline water accounted for almost 97% of the make-up water used (see the figure below). Although alternative water sources only made up about 3% of the total, the volume of alternative water amounted to over 0.8 million m3 — a substantial volume that could have otherwise been nonsaline water. While alternative make-up water volumes remain relatively small, their use increased by 854% between 2013 and 2022, demonstrating that operators are looking at alternative water sources to meet their needs.
Since 2013, nonsaline make-up water has increased by 278%, while production increased by 608% over the same period.
Nonsaline Water Use Intensity
In 2022, hydraulic fracturing companies used about 20% (25 million m3) of the nonsaline water allocated, producing over 619 million BOE.
Nonsaline water use intensity refers to the amount of nonsaline water in barrels used to produce one BOE. As mentioned earlier, hydraulic fracturing operations usually require water only during well completion (part of the “construct“ stage), whereas other extraction technologies also require it during the “operations” stage. To enable comparisons with these other technologies (which are based on a calendar year of hydrocarbon production), we calculate the nonsaline water use intensity for hydraulic fracturing based on the first 12 months of available production data following the fracture rather than production volumes during the calendar year. This method shows that operators used 0.83 barrels of nonsaline water to produce one BOE for wells fractured in 2022 (see the following figure).
From 2013 to 2022, nonsaline water use intensity for hydraulic fracturing increased by 260%. The following factors may have contributed to this increase:
- Varying geological conditions: Water use intensity varies among geologic formations and within each formation. Some formations need more water per well because of the properties of the formation rock.
- Available hydrocarbon resource: Not all geologic formations contain the same volume of hydrocarbons throughout the entire formation, and therefore, some wells have less recoverable hydrocarbons. This situation can result in a higher water use intensity for otherwise identical wells. Operators tend to drill locations with the highest volume of recoverable hydrocarbons first, then move to the next-best location, resulting in higher water use intensity as they deplete the resource on their leases..
- Operating conditions: Companies may operate each well differently depending on the fracture design and geological conditions to maintain pressure, preserve fracture stability, and maximize long-term production volumes. Operators do this by restricting the well’s production in the first few months after completing hydraulic fracturing, resulting in lower initial hydrocarbon production volumes affecting the nonsaline water use intensity (12-month production) calculation
- Fracture design: Operators experiment with different well lengths, number of fracture stages, volume of water per stage, and other variables to identify optimal fracture design for geological conditions. This type of optimization work is ongoing.
Because water use intensity decreases as the well continues to produce hydrocarbons, data over a five-year period is more reflective of the long-term intensity than the initial 12 months of production. The following figure shows the change in intensity over five years of production following the fracture. The intensity of an average producing well that was hydraulically fractured decreases by 73% (to 0.12 bbl/BOE) over these early years of production and continues decreasing the longer it produces.
Water use data from hydraulically fractured wells include the well's water use in 2022. Production data, however, is pulled from the first 12 months of production after the fracture, not by the calendar year. This approach differs from the nonsaline water use intensity for other extraction technologies that base water use and production volume on the calendar year.
For example, for a well fractured in April 2022, the data pulled on its first year of production would extend into April 2023 — 12 months after its fracture date. The cutoff date to include production data in the hydraulic fracturing intensity calculation was the end of April 2023. Therefore, wells fractured after April 2022 or wells that did not have 12 months of production data are not included.
Basing water use intensity on 12 months of production data has its limitations:
- It does not account for long-term production. Wells may produce for decades without using more water; therefore, the true overall nonsaline water use intensity cannot be represented. (However, we did show what intensity looks like for five years of production in the preceding figure.)
- It does not account for varying strategies that can be used to produce a well, such as restricting early production to extend a well's operational life and increase the estimated total resource recovery. Such a strategy would result in higher intensity in the first 12 months — not because water use is higher than normal but because production has been restricted.
- It does not account for different trends in completions technology.
To make meaningful comparisons, we compare the data of companies with similar experiences and expertise based on their annual hydrocarbon production. In the figures below, companies are sorted by their total BOE production over the 12 months ending in April 2023. The figures default to display all companies, which can be changed using the "Company size" filter.
Use the tool below to find a specific company size by production volume. The “company size” filter can be applied to show a particular company with its peers.
Water Use Intensity by Company
Generally, companies using greater proportions of recycled and alternative make-up water have lower nonsaline water use intensities. However, several variables affect the total volume of water used to fracture a well, including geology, vertical depth, fractured length, and the number of fractured stages. Although more water may be used because of those variables, they may also result in higher production, which means there could be little effect on nonsaline water use intensity.
The following figure shows the hydraulic fracturing nonsaline water use intensity by company for wells fractured in 2022.
The nonsaline water use intensity by geological formation or group aggregated by annual company production is shown below in the left-hand figure. Select a company from the filter, and you will see the nonsaline water use intensity for that company. This will make it possible to compare the company's water use intensity to the average for that production group. All company-level nonsaline water use intensity by formation or group is shown below in the right-hand figure.
Generally, we expect that nonsaline water use intensity will improve as technology and regulations advance, enabling operators to use more alternative make-up water sources and produce more efficiently from the formations.
Water Use Intensity by Formation
Nonsaline water use intensity within geological formations (or geological groups) is provided in the following figure. The left column shows the volumes of nonsaline, recycled, and alternative make-up water used by each company in 2022. The middle column shows the hydrocarbon production for wells fractured in 2022, and the right column shows the nonsaline water use intensity for wells with 12 months of production. Hover over the nonsaline water use intensity to show the nonsaline water volume used in wells with at least 12 months of production and the 12-month production value used to calculate intensity.
The following figures show ten-year trend data on water use, make-up water sources, hydrocarbon production, and nonsaline water use intensity.
The "Total Water Use" figure shows all the water used for fracturing operations in the calendar year. The "Total Yearly Production" figure shows the production from all hydraulically fractured wells within the calendar year. The "Make-up Water Source" figure below shows the water sources used for fracturing operations in the calendar year. The "Nonsaline Water Use Intensity" figures are calculated based on wells fractured before April 2022 with at least 12 months' production data. (Wells with less than 12 months of production were excluded.)